Looking at the Choral Conducting Profession From a Sociological Perspective
A Singaporean analysis
The best Choral Directors tease out beautiful voices from their singers and inspire them as musicians. In Singapore this profession is slowly gaining momentum especially after the conception of the Choral Excellence Program in 1987 (National Arts Council). What began as a vision by the late Education Minister Tay Eng Soon to groom a few elite school choirs has blossomed into today’s a vibrant choral landscape, where more than half of all students in Singapore can get a choral experience (Ministry of Education, 2008). Naturally, the pool of choral directors has grown with the increased demand in schools from a handful in the 80s, to about 30 active school choir conductors. In this paper the interaction of history and sociological theories is explored to provide a refreshing perspective to this obscure profession of being a choral director in Singapore schools.
Internationally, male artists outnumber female artists, especially in musician and conductor circles (Menger, 1999). Gender-wise, our local choral conductors are interestingly balanced, although in recently years more males than females have entered this field. Two likely explanations for this trend could be traced back to choral history in schools and the Asian attitudes towards work that predominate in Singapore.
Perhaps the best starting place is the mission schools founded by English Missionaries. These schools opened their doors to girls, who had less opportunity to receive education compared to boys in the past. Today, schools like Fairfield Methodist have become coeducational, although some like Methodist Girls’ School still remain single-sex schools. In these schools weekly chapel sessions introduced students to hymns and a culture of singing. Naturally, school choirs were born and the conductors were teachers – mostly females. Today, fewer teachers conduct their school choirs due to their enormous teaching portfolios; schools recognize the need to hire outsiders to train their choirs, and this has creating the job opportunities – which has allowed and increased the influx of male conductors into schools.
Second, Singaporeans today still have strong notions of men being the family’s breadwinner or main income provider. The nature of the conducting profession in Singapore is fluid; a high-paying stable income is not easily guaranteed, making the job less appealing to men who need the job security. A conductor’s working hours depend on their schools - each with a unique schedule for their students; rehearsals are typically after classroom hours or on specified co-curricular days. Full-time choral directors could have up to 8 choirs from primary, secondary and junior-college levels, and the autonomy choral directors can exercise over their time allow them to accommodate as many rehearsal with different schools as long as their schedules permit. As choral conductors are classified as Co-curricular Activities (CCA) instructors under the Ministry of Education, during school holidays, exam periods, pre-competition or pre-performance the frequency of rehearsals vary according to the demands of schools and the readiness of the choir. As such, most Choral Directors receive hourly rates, or sign teaching contracts with their schools; these contracts are individually negotiated and largely depend on budget and availability of funds given to the choir.
In the best schools with strong musical heritages and high aesthetic cultures, the best choral directors are sought to train the students to attain high levels of excellence. Students engage in choral exchanges with fellow choirs, participate in overseas competitions for exposure and put up ticketed performances in classy venues such as Esplanade and Victoria Concert Hall (Tham, 2003).
It is not surprising then that we catch glimpses of Taylorism (1934) in the interactions between conductors, their choirs and the schools. Even though this is an artistic setting, Frederick Taylor’s principles of scientific management manifest themselves subtly in the conductor’s work. Where they can afford, conductors hold stringent auditions to select only the best singers into their choirs, they institute ‘sectionals’ (the individual meetings of the different sections (soprano, alto tenor, bass) of the choir to learn their respective music parts) preceding rehearsals so they can delve immediately into the music without wasting time teaching notes… In fact in some schools, principals begin the term by communicating their goals and aspirations (like a public performance or a SYF gold award) for their choirs, so conductors and their choirs can continually work towards achieving better results.
Choral instruction involves much vocal coaching and demonstration on the part of conductors, while choristers imitate in response. It is harder for boys to model a soprano sound and it takes special expertise for female conductors to take care of the changing voice in youth experiencing puberty. Applying scientific management principles to this provides an alternative explanation to the natural inclination of female conductors preferring to train girls’ choirs and male conductors preferring boys’ choirs (even if they are competent to train both genders); conductors directing choirs of the same gender not only increases their comfort level, but is by far the most efficient way to handle young singers who learn through imitation (Callahan, 1964).
As developing an ear for music begins at a young age, many conductors find those primary school students exposed to hymns, music and singing from young grow to be more natural singers. This is despite the fact that most students become avid consumers of pop music by the time they reach their teens, and is probably due to Church music bearing similarity to European and Western Choral Traditions - the tradition most conductors are familiar with. In fact, it is noteworthy how the first few Choral Excellence Program schools consisted mainly of these schools with a rich musical heritage. Not surprisingly, many older Choral Directors of these schools (now in their 40s) began their conducting careers in Church. These could account for the majority of Choral Directors being Chinese as in Singapore, Chinese from the English-speaking homes formed the majority of Church-goers in the past. Today, there is a weaker pattern in religiosity among conductors.
In fact, religion is a sensitive topic among choral directors. In multi-religious Singapore, conductors often face a dilemma when they plan repertoire. The choral tradition is rich in sacred music, and conductors often have to balance between ‘education’ and exercising discretion and sensitivity when selecting music for secular choirs, which consist of students from differing religious backgrounds.
Conducting is an art that is not only technically demanding but also very much people orientated; the conductor’s job extends beyond communicative gestures as the dynamics of musical relationships and good choral discipline take time to build. In fact, many conductors enter this field as amateurs (a handful even as volunteers), because of their love of music often resulting from positive experiences as conductors or choristers in their community. This can be labeled as a ‘labor of love’ (Friedson, 1990), where these conductors work because of their deep passion notwithstanding the lower pay that often does not justify the amount of talent or hard work that goes into their art.
This often describes the conductors of accomplished, internationally reputable school choirs. It is safe to assume that they experience the highest levels of self-actualization, believing that they are “called” to be conductors. Robert Blauner (1964) would classify them as having the lowest levels of alienation, particularly self-estrangement –where workers see no higher purpose in their job.
However, the reality is that not all choirs have come so far. Many conductors of schools without a music culture and supportive schools share that they struggle to form their choirs and maintain regular rehearsals. One distinct factor about Singapore’s conductors is the working partnership with the choir teacher who is their bridge to the school administration; overseas conductors in schools are often full-time music teachers who teach music lessons in addition to conducting the choir. Conductors often do not get supportive, experienced and knowledgeable teachers to make juggling multiple choirs. Conductors in these situations relate to the loneliness and helplessness (Blauner, 1964) of the job, where they often have to drop the school to find another. This worsens when school budgets allocate insufficient funds to hire good conductors or buy music scores for the singers; so conductors find themselves receiving compromised pay and lacking resources to train their choirs.
Conductors’ earnings are a tricky issue, especially without official documentation available for reference. Generally, conductors concur that this is highly performance based, where pay increases are based on their choir’s accomplishments, like improved standings in local of international competitions or being invited to sing at regional or international symposiums – even so, this is risky as some schools neither can afford nor are willing to pay lavishly. The starting hourly rate for an amateur conductor could range from $30 - $60, and qualified conductors can command $100 - $240 hourly. Those possessing formal qualifications typically have a bachelors’ degree in music performance or Masters in Choral Conducting, although most conductors enter the field as amateurs. For professional development, some conductors try to participate in masterclasses or workshops organized by the Co-curricular Activities branch, and internationally organized events such as the World Choral Symposium organized by the International Federation for Choral Music.
It is widely acknowledged that artists generally earn less than their counterparts possessing same levels of qualifications in other industries (Menger, 1999). Many conductors choose to be positive, believing the beauty of freelance conducting gives them spare time during classroom hours, to pursue other interests and unleash their entrepreneurial spirit to supplement their income.
This economic situation they face seems to resemble some of Guy Standing’s (1999) key ideas on the feminization of flexible labor. While there is insufficient data to conclude a growing trend in the number of females entering this profession, contracts conductors have with schools include no benefits, bonuses, insurance or job security. Especially looking at the shift of conducting in schools from the past (school teachers themselves) to present (hiring freelance conductors), this aspect matches Standing’s idea of how jobs are increasingly feminized.
The choral directing scene in Singapore seems to be moving toward a certain direction. Many conductors (who began their careers at the dawn of the SYF Choral Excellence Program) have successfully established their choirs as multiple awardees of ‘SYF Gold with Honors’ awards and prestigious international choral competitions winners. These conductors are gradually transiting from mainstream conductors to playing consultant roles for other choirs, and are increasingly being invited to adjudicate regional choral festivals or symposiums. Young upcoming conductors are filling their shoes. This new generation of conductors are choristers who grew up singing under these established conductors. In school, they were student conductors who learnt the art through observing, imitating and mentorship from their conductors. After graduation, they worked as teaching assistants to their mentors who slowly handed over some of their choirs to them. A quick examination of the current choral scene will reveal that this networking seems to be crucial in catapulting these young conductors into successful conducting careers in the better schools.
In an effort to heighten professional development among choral directors, the Choral Directors’ Association (Singapore) was formed in 2002. Although it does not function like a labor union that campaigns for worker’s pay, this organization partners with the Co-curricular Activities Branch of the Ministry of Education, organizes talks and events to heighten the musicianship of the members – consisting largely of new conductors who were choristers of one of the pioneers, who also is the president of this association. Although many more conductors exist outside the circle, they may not always be keen to participate in the association’s activities, deterred by their lack of knowledge of current events and the perceived nature of membership. Although this association is still young and finding its feet, it is undeniably an avenue where beginning conductors in particular can receive guidance and support.
The profession of Choral Directing in Singapore still remains understudied. With characteristics that pattern Standing’s feminization, we acknowledge the diverse backgrounds of each conductor and the unique and often unpredictable nature of his work. While we trace the progress choirs make as they grow vocally and as musicians, more traces of Taylorism surface as we study the way conductors run their choirs. Also, two broad patterns that emerge from looking at the work of Choral Directors – the first being those in settings where they have a wealth of conducting experience or have sufficient mentorship to be able to train their choirs, perform and even bring them overseas for competition. These conductors experience the lowest levels of Blauner’s alienation as opposed to those conductors in the second setting – without sufficient support from their schools these struggle to form, train and maintain the choir; these tend to experience higher levels of powerlessness and self-estrangement.
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